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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Common Core Sample: Plumbing the Dark Mysteries of National Standards

I'm cranky. Are you? I've just been a downright Scrooge, though I really don't mean to. And I didn't know why until today. You see, for the last three months I've been aligning and adding the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to all of my lesson plans. And, like drinking wine tainted with an undetectable, scentless, tasteless, and usually in powder form, poison, it's been secretly making me ill.

Maybe it's been the recent blogs and articles about the CCSS that opened my eyes or the recent workshop I attended on aligning the CCSS. Not sure. But I do know that I'm not usually cranky, except when I'm hungry.

Raising the Bar

I can feel there's a transformation going on within the kids in my classroom, and I have my suspicions that these standards are playing a not-so-insignificant part. Right now it's only a minor morph, but I feel it. They are growing up, maturing, thinking deeper and wider. In my eyes, they're more like eleven. But they don't know it. ("I'm eight, Mr. P." "No, you're eleven, darnit! Act like it. It's standard now.") CCSS has pushed me to push my students two, three, four levels above their heads. I'm all about pushing, getting the most out of my students. But right now I feel like I'm trying to push a slimy oyster into a slot machine. It's just not going to happen. And the CCSS is telling me that what I'm teaching is standard, middle of the road stuff. Like I said, cranky.

It's this constant tug-of-war between what's standard (Do we really have a standard student? A standard teacher? A standard learner?) and what eight-year-olds can physically and mentally do, what their physiology allows them to create, deduce, interpret and analyze.

Sure, I want my students to excel. I want them to be able to...

LA.3.RI.3.3 - [Grade Level Standard] - Describe the relationship between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text, using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect.

Absolutely! That would be awesome. And I want them to...

LA.3.RL.CCR.8 - [Anchor Standard] - Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Eight-year-olds, dude.

Muddying the Waters

This is all in good intention, but maybe... I've got it! Maybe my pissy mood is rooted in the standards' utter lack of a clue regarding the machinations of the third grade mind. When a third grader delineates an argument, what does it look and sound like? And more importantly -- what will mastery look like?

Man, I don't know. And I can't find a thing about it. If we need to be UBD-ing it, we need to know the end point before we can make a plan to get there. Right? I wouldn't attempt to teach someone how to play the blues like Muddy Waters without making them listen to Muddy first. If the state and government want students to achieve on a higher level, teachers, students and parents probably should know what that level looks like. Right now, the end is muddy.

The standards look good on paper. They go deep on paper. But . . . teachers have been teaching for a long time in a NCLB mind-set -- shallow, watery skills and memorized facts to pass a test at the end of the year. Kind of like a temporary tattoo. On paper, the CCSS embeds deeper ink, but time is needed to turn the ship away from the iceberg. And it's a big ship, my friends. Millions of students need to be rewired. Time, time, time. Time is needed for deconstruction and reconstruction of the student and the teacher. It's probably not a good time to start a new way to evaluate teachers, but so many states are in this accountability frenzy that is doesn't matter. How many teachers will lose their jobs because of students not cutting it with the new standards? That's a bit of a concern, especially when fifty percent of teacher evaluation is based on an assessment directly conceived from the CCSS.

A National Standard

All but five states have adopted the CCSS. This is the closest that the United States has ever been to a countrywide standardization. I've been thinking about this, and I'm not sure if it's good or bad. If the standards live up to the hype, then it's good? When I learned to play tennis, I had to break a few bad habits before I could thoroughly practice for perfection. If I hit a rotten forehand four hundred times it's still a rotten forehand (probably worse). Can't blame my effort. Hopefully the CCSS is not rotten. However, I don't think it matters because we've already jumped off the diving board. I just hope there's water in the pool. But seriously, if something is grand and standardized, is it no longer grand? When I visited the Nancie Atwell Center for Teaching and Learning, I saw all teachers teaching the same way, but it was marvelous and real and I would want my own children to experience such an education. The whole school ran on the same systems and believed in the same philosophy. It worked for them. I guess you can say it was standard, but it is an honest and real education. Thomas Newkirk, in his article The Text Itself brings up a very good point that we should all be aware of as we attempt to teach and live under the shadow of CCSS: "Bad things happen to good ideas when they become mandates."

Will national standards raise the United States out of the muck and grime? Will it save our souls from the nuclear fallout of NCLB? In the words of Butt-head, "Uh, no." It's too grand of a scheme to work, right? It's too vast and open for interpretation. What really matters is what's going on in the classroom day-to-day, hour-to-hour and minute-to-minute. The small stuff, brothers and sisters.

What experiences have you had with the CCSS?

Do you think it will lead to a national curriculum?

What pressures? Stress?

What successes?




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Chad Janowski's picture
Chad Janowski
Biology & Environmental Science Educator from Shawano, WI

While I patiently wait for the Next Generation Science Standards (call 'em Common Core and face trademark infringement!) I feel the pain of the elementary teacher that must sift through standards for all subject areas. While well intentioned and idealistic, the standards will still only accomplish what the teacher and their administrators put in to them. Teaching during the last round of standards alignment, I saw twenty teachers take twenty different approaches and come up with twenty different ways to make their curriculum "meet" the standards. Some would bend the meaning and intent of the standards, simply to continue teaching the same material, or to show that they indeed have "covered" all of the standards.

We need networks of educators discussing the outward reflections you seek for each and every standard. Then, we need teachers who are willing to take the time to reflect on the impact of every learning experience on every student in their classrooms, then abandon, modify, or supplement as necessary to justify their accountability.

Be cranky...it's warranted.

Dan Ryder's picture
Dan Ryder
English teacher, university instructor, learning nerd in Maine

I get it.

Once again, education faces some wholesale changes to the world in which we work and our students learn. And this can be nerve wracking and stressful -- especially for those of us tuned in to the coming tides, swept up in the gears of change, and mixing metaphors just to make sense of it all.

I get it.

And the Common Core fails to frighten. So far.

Why? Because no matter the language used, the standards seem pretty dang reasonable. None of the above examples are asking third-graders to do something beyond their reach or something beyond a reasonable, developmentally appropriate expectation. It's just the language is written apart from its context and the language, for crying out loud, the language.

I'd love a corner seat in the ill-lighted smoke-filled room of Don Drapers who hash out this edu-speak; They do a dang fine job of making sure educators spend more time interpreting and parsing and less time planning meaningful instruction and effective assessment. And empowering students to be critical, metacognitive thinkers who are aware of what is being asked of them and how they are going about demonstrating that learning? Yeah, that is three weeks of lesson-planning and assessment right there. And they haven't even begun working toward the standards yet.

All of this though is still missing the bigger concern for me: the how. So far, the Common Core appears to just make suggestions about the how, offering up suggested readings and exemplar lessons. Some states have greater reservoirs of CC-aligned resources than others.

So far, the situation has yet to become entirely prescriptive. Here are your meds, kids. Chew them, drink them, cram it into a Twinkie if you like. That's all you. We just want you taking them. And I think they are harmless enough -- heck, maybe down right healthy.

I will start screaming other poorly considered analogies when the standardized assessments land and the Common Core system prevents educators from empowering students to demonstrate that achievement in ways that are authentic, relevant, powerful and meaningful.

Go ahead and tell the the what. That's fine. Heck, tell the why. That's cool, too.

Leave the how up to the experts: the students and the educators.

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